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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Good Old Days of Knickerbocker Life
By Washington Irving (1783–1859)
 
From ‘A History of New York: By Diedrich Knickerbocker’

THE HOUSES of the higher class were generally constructed of wood, excepting the gable end, which was of small black and yellow Dutch bricks, and always faced on the street,—as our ancestors, like their descendants, were very much given to outward show, and were noted for putting the best leg foremost. The house was always furnished with abundance of large doors and small windows on every floor; the date of its erection was curiously designated by iron figures on the front; and on the top of the roof was perched a fierce little weathercock, to let the family into the important secret which way the wind blew. These, like the weathercocks on the tops of our steeples, pointed so many different ways that every man could have a wind to his mind; the most stanch and loyal citizens, however, always went according to the weathercock on the top of the governor’s house, which was certainly the most correct, as he had a trusty servant employed every morning to climb up and set it to the right quarter.  1
  In those good days of simplicity and sunshine, a passion for cleanliness was the leading principle in domestic economy, and the universal test of an able housewife,—a character which formed the utmost ambition of our unenlightened grandmothers. The front door was never opened except on marriages, funerals, New Year’s days, the festival of St. Nicholas, or some such great occasion. It was ornamented with a gorgeous brass knocker curiously wrought, sometimes in the device of a dog and sometimes of a lion’s head, and was daily burnished with such religious zeal that it was ofttimes worn out by the very precautions taken for its preservation. The whole house was constantly in a state of inundation, under the discipline of mops and brooms and scrubbing-brushes; and the good housewives of those days were a kind of amphibious animal, delighting exceedingly to be dabbling in water: insomuch that a historian of the day gravely tells us that many of his townswomen grew to have webbed fingers like unto a duck; and some of them, he had little doubt, could the matter be examined into, would be found to have the tails of mermaids—but this I look upon to be a mere sport of fancy, or what is worse, a willful misrepresentation.  2
  The grand parlor was the sanctum sanctorum, where the passion for cleaning was indulged without control. In this sacred apartment no one was permitted to enter excepting the mistress and her confidential maid, who visited it once a week for the purpose of giving it a thorough cleaning and putting things to rights,—always taking the precaution of leaving their shoes at the door, and entering devoutly in their stocking feet. After scrubbing the floor, sprinkling it with fine white sand, which was curiously stroked into angles and curves and rhomboids with a broom,—after washing the windows, rubbing and polishing the furniture, and putting a new bunch of evergreens in the fireplace,—the window shutters were again closed to keep out the flies, and the room carefully locked up until the revolution of time brought round the weekly cleaning-day.  3
  As to the family, they always entered in at the gate, and most generally lived in the kitchen. To have seen a numerous household assembled around the fire, one would have imagined that he was transported back to those happy days of primeval simplicity which float before our imaginations like golden visions. The fireplaces were of a truly patriarchal magnitude, where the whole family, old and young, master and servant, black and white,—nay, even the very cat and dog,—enjoyed a community of privilege, and had each a right to a corner. Here the old burgher would sit in perfect silence, puffing his pipe, looking in the fire with half-shut eyes, and thinking of nothing, for hours together; the goede vrouw on the opposite side would employ herself diligently in spinning yarn or knitting stockings. The young folks would crowd around the hearth, listening with breathless attention to some old crone of a negro, who was the oracle of the family, and who, perched like a raven in a corner of the chimney, would croak forth for a long winter afternoon a string of incredible stories about New England witches, grisly ghosts, horses without heads, and hairbreadth escapes and bloody encounters among the Indians.  4
  In those happy days a well-regulated family always rose with the dawn, dined at eleven, and went to bed at sundown. Dinner was invariably a private meal, and the fat old burghers showed incontestable symptoms of disapprobation and uneasiness at being surprised by a visit from a neighbor on such occasions. But though our worthy ancestors were thus singularly averse to giving dinners, yet they kept up the social bands of intimacy by occasional banquetings, called tea parties.  5
  These fashionable parties were generally confined to the higher classes or noblesse; that is to say, such as kept their own cows and drove their own wagons. The company commonly assembled at three o’clock and went away about six, unless it was in winter-time, when the fashionable hours were a little earlier, that the ladies might get home before dark. The tea-table was crowned with a huge earthen dish, well stored with slices of fat pork fried brown, cut up into morsels and swimming in gravy. The company, being seated around the genial board and each furnished with a fork, evinced their dexterity in launching at the fattest pieces in this mighty dish; in much the same manner as sailors harpoon porpoises at sea, or our Indians spear salmon in the lakes. Sometimes the table was graced with immense apple pies, or saucers full of preserved peaches and pears; but it was always sure to boast an enormous dish of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts or olykoeks,—a delicious kind of cake, at present scarce known in this city excepting in genuine Dutch families.  6
  The tea was served out of a majestic delft teapot, ornamented with paintings of fat little Dutch shepherds and shepherdesses tending pigs, with boats sailing in the air, and houses built in the clouds, and sundry other ingenious Dutch fantasies. The beaux distinguished themselves by their adroitness in replenishing this pot from a huge copper tea-kettle, which would have made the pigmy macaronies of these degenerate days sweat merely to look at it. To sweeten the beverage, a lump of sugar was laid beside each cup: and the company alternately nibbled and sipped with great decorum, until an improvement was introduced by a shrewd and economic old lady, which was to suspend a large lump directly over the tea-table by a string from the ceiling, so that it could be swung from mouth to mouth; an ingenious expedient which is still kept up by some families in Albany, but which prevails without exception in Communipaw, Bergen, Flatbush, and all our uncontaminated Dutch villages.  7
  At these primitive tea parties the utmost propriety and dignity of deportment prevailed. No flirting nor coquetting, no gambling of old ladies nor hoyden chattering and romping of young ones, no self-satisfied struttings of wealthy gentlemen with their brains in their pockets, nor amusing conceits and monkey divertisements of smart young gentlemen with no brains at all. On the contrary, the young ladies seated themselves demurely in their rush-bottomed chairs, and knit their own woolen stockings; nor ever opened their lips excepting to say Yah Mynheer, or Yah yah Vrouw, to any question that was asked them: behaving in all things like decent, well-educated damsels. As to the gentlemen, each of them tranquilly smoked his pipe, and seemed lost in contemplation of the blue and white tiles with which the fireplaces were decorated, wherein sundry passages of Scripture were piously portrayed. Tobit and his dog figured to great advantage; Haman swung conspicuously on his gibbet, and Jonah appeared most manfully bouncing out of the whale, like Harlequin through a barrel of fire.  8
  The parties broke up without noise and without confusion. They were carried home by their own carriages; that is to say, by the vehicles Nature had provided them, excepting such of the wealthy as could afford to keep a wagon. The gentlemen gallantly attended their fair ones to their respective abodes, and took leave of them with a hearty smack at the door; which, as it was an established piece of etiquette, done in perfect simplicity and honesty of heart, occasioned no scandal at that time, nor should it at the present. If our great-grandfathers approved of the custom, it would argue a great want of reverence in their descendants to say a word against it.  9
 
  IN this dulcet period of my history, when the beauteous island of Manna-hata presented a scene the very counterpart of those glowing pictures drawn of the golden reign of Saturn, there was, as I have before observed, a happy ignorance, an honest simplicity, prevalent among its inhabitants, which were I even able to depict, would be but little understood by the degenerate age for which I am doomed to write.  10
  Even the female sex, those arch innovators upon the tranquillity, the honesty and gray-beard customs of society, seemed for a while to conduct themselves with incredible sobriety and comeliness. Their hair, untortured by the abominations of art, was scrupulously pomatumed back from their foreheads with a candle, and covered with a little cap of quilted calico, which fitted exactly to their heads. Their petticoats of linsey-woolsey were striped with a variety of gorgeous dyes—though I must confess these gallant garments were rather short, scarce reaching below the knee: but then they made up in the number, which generally equaled that of the gentlemen’s small-clothes; and what is still more praiseworthy, they were all of their own manufacture—of which circumstance, as may well be supposed, they were not a little vain.  11
  These were the honest days in which every woman stayed at home, read the Bible, and wore pockets—ay, and that too of a goodly size, fashioned with patchwork into many curious devices, and ostentatiously worn on the outside. These in fact were convenient receptacles, where all good housewives carefully stowed away such things as they wished to have at hand—by which means they often came to be incredibly crammed: and I remember there was a story current when I was a boy, that the lady of Wouter Van Twiller once had occasion to empty her right pocket in search of a wooden ladle, and the utensil was discovered lying among some rubbish in one corner; but we must not give too much faith to all these stories, the anecdotes of those remote periods being very subject to exaggeration.  12
  Besides these notable pockets, they likewise wore scissors and pin-cushions suspended from their girdles by red ribands, or among the more opulent and showy classes, by brass and even silver chains,—indubitable tokens of thrifty housewives and industrious spinsters. I cannot say much in vindication of the shortness of the petticoats: it doubtless was introduced for the purpose of giving the stockings a chance to be seen, which were generally of blue worsted, with magnificent red clocks—or perhaps to display a well-turned ankle, and a neat though serviceable foot, set off by a high-heeled leathern shoe, with a large and splendid silver buckle. Thus we find that the gentle sex in all ages have shown the same disposition to infringe a little upon the laws of decorum, in order to betray a lurking beauty or gratify an innocent love of finery.  13
  From the sketch here given, it will be seen that our good grandmothers differed considerably in their ideas of a fine figure from their scantily dressed descendants of the present day. A fine lady in those times waddled under more clothes, even on a fair summer’s day, than would have clad the whole bevy of a modern ball-room. Nor were they the less admired by the gentlemen in consequence thereof. On the contrary, the greatness of a lover’s passion seemed to increase in proportion to the magnitude of its object; and a voluminous damsel arrayed in a dozen of petticoats was declared by a Low Dutch sonneteer of the province to be radiant as a sunflower, and luxuriant as a full-blown cabbage. Certain it is, that in those days the heart of a lover could not contain more than one lady at a time; whereas the heart of a modern gallant has often room enough to accommodate half a dozen. The reason of which I conclude to be, that either the hearts of the gentlemen have grown larger, or the persons of the ladies smaller; this, however, is a question for physiologists to determine.  14
  But there was a secret charm in these petticoats, which no doubt entered into the consideration of the prudent gallants. The wardrobe of a lady was in those days her only fortune; and she who had a good stock of petticoats and stockings was as absolutely an heiress as is a Kamtschatka damsel with a store of bearskins, or a Lapland belle with a plenty of reindeer. The ladies therefore were very anxious to display these powerful attractions to the greatest advantage; and the best rooms in the house, instead of being adorned with caricatures of Dame Nature in water-colors and needlework, were always hung round with abundance of homespun garments, the manufacture and the property of the females,—a piece of laudable ostentation that still prevails among the heiresses of our Dutch villages.  15
  The gentlemen, in fact, who figured in the circles of the gay world in these ancient times, corresponded in most particulars with the beauteous damsels whose smiles they were ambitious to deserve. True it is, their merits would make but a very inconsiderable impression upon the heart of a modern fair: they neither drove their curricles nor sported their tandems, for as yet those gaudy vehicles were not even dreamt of; neither did they distinguish themselves by their brilliancy at the table and their consequent rencontres with watchmen, for our forefathers were of too pacific a disposition to need those guardians of the night, every soul throughout the town being sound asleep before nine o’clock. Neither did they establish their claims to gentility at the expense of their tailors, for as yet those offenders against the pockets of society and the tranquillity of all aspiring young gentlemen were unknown in New Amsterdam: every good housewife made the clothes of her husband and family, and even the goede vrouw of Van Twiller himself thought it no disparagement to cut out her husband’s linsey-woolsey galligaskins.  16
  Not but what there were some two or three youngsters who manifested the first dawnings of what is called fire and spirit; who held all labor in contempt; skulked about docks and marketplaces; loitered in the sunshine; squandered what little money they could procure at hustle-cap and chuck-farthing; swore, boxed, fought cocks, and raced their neighbors’ horses,—in short, who promised to be the wonder, the talk, and abomination of the town, had not their stylish career been unfortunately cut short by an affair of honor with a whipping-post.  17
  Far other, however, was the truly fashionable gentleman of those days. His dress, which served for both morning and evening, street and drawing-room, was a linsey-woolsey coat, made perhaps by the fair hands of the mistress of his affections, and gallantly bedecked with abundance of large brass buttons; half a score of breeches heightened the proportions of his figure, his shoes were decorated by enormous copper buckles, a low-crowned, broad-brimmed hat overshadowed his burly visage, and his hair dangled down his back in a prodigious queue of eelskin.  18
  Thus equipped, he would manfully sally forth with pipe in mouth to besiege some fair damsel’s obdurate heart: not such a pipe, good reader, as that which Acis did sweetly tune in praise of his Galatea, but one of true Delft manufacture, and furnished with a charge of fragrant tobacco. With this would he resolutely set himself down before the fortress; and rarely failed in the process of time to smoke the fair enemy into a surrender, upon honorable terms.  19
  Such was the happy reign of Wouter Van Twiller, celebrated in many a long-forgotten song as the real golden age, the rest being nothing but counterfeit copper-washed coin. In that delightful period a sweet and holy calm reigned over the whole province. The burgomaster smoked his pipe in peace; the substantial solace of his domestic cares, after her daily toils were done, sat soberly at the door with her arms crossed over her apron of snowy white, without being insulted by ribald street-walkers or vagabond boys,—those unlucky urchins who do so infest our streets, displaying under the roses of youth the thorns and briers of iniquity. Then it was that the lover with ten breeches, and the damsel with petticoats of half a score, indulged in all the innocent endearments of virtuous love, without fear and without reproach; for what had that virtue to fear which was defended by a shield of good linsey-woolseys, equal at least to the seven bull-hides of the invincible Ajax?  20
  Ah! blissful and never-to-be-forgotten age! when everything was better than it has ever been since, or ever will be again: when Buttermilk Channel was quite dry at low water; when the shad in the Hudson were all salmon; and when the moon shone with a pure and resplendent whiteness, instead of that melancholy yellow light which is the consequence of her sickening at the abominations she every night witnesses in this degenerate city!  21
  Happy would it have been for New Amsterdam, could it always have existed in this state of blissful ignorance and lowly simplicity; but alas! the days of childhood are too sweet to last! Cities, like men, grow out of them in time, and are doomed alike to grow into the bustle, the cares, and miseries of the world. Let no man congratulate himself when he beholds the child of his bosom or the city of his birth increasing in magnitude and importance: let the history of his own life teach him the dangers of the one, and this excellent little history of Manna-hata convince him of the calamities of the other.  22
 
 
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